Hillbilly Girls

Oak Ridge, the giant industrial city created out of farmland in Tennessee, had one central job: separation of U235 from its less fissionable isotopic counterpart, U238. The first method that worked, electromagnetic separation by giant calutrons, a cousin of the cyclotron and ancestor of the mass spectrometer, by acceleration of ions through a magnetic field, creating separation based on the different radii of circulation of the two ions. That was the job of the Y-12 plant.

In those pre-computer days, operating the calutrons meant human control of a bunch of parameters that needed to be carefully controlled: source heating, voltage, ionization..." by operators reading dials and tweaking knobs.

In Berkeley, only PhDs had been allowed to operate the panels controlling the electromagnetic separation units. When Tennessee Eastman suggested turning over the operation of Lawrence’s calutrons to a bunch of young women fresh off the farm with nothing more than a public school education, the Nobel Prize winner was skeptical. But it was decided Lawrence’s team would work out the kinks for the calutron units and then pass control to the female operators.

Then the District Engineer [General Leslie Groves] gave [Cyclotron and Calutron Inventor E. O.] Lawrence some surprising news: the “hillbilly” girls were generating more enriched Tubealloy[Uranium] per run than the PhDs had. And Product was all that mattered.

A gauntlet had been thrown down.

The two men agreed to a production race. Whichever group generated the most enriched Tubealloy over a specified amount of time would win—though “winning” only meant bragging rights for the Engineer or Lawrence.

By the end of the designated contest period, Lawrence and his PhDs had lost handily.

They just couldn’t stop fiddling with things, Lawrence thought, trying to make things run smoother, faster, harder. Still, he was surprised.

The District Engineer understood perfectly. Those girls, “hillbilly” or no, had been trained like soldiers. Do what you’re told. Don’t ask why.

He and the General knew that was how you got results.

Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II (pp. 109-110). Touchstone. Kindle Edition.

PhDs are easily distracted.


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